According to a study published on February 17 in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have discovered substantial differences in brain development at age six months in high-risk infants who develop autism, than high-risk infants who do not develop the condition.
Scans were performed when the children were 6 months, 1-year, and 2-years old. At 2 years, the age when children are typically diagnosed, 30 percent of the children were found to have autism. The researchers then compared the brain images of the autistic children with the others. They saw differences in the brain’s white matter, the axon-laden pathways that transmit electrical signals to distant parts of the brain. Of the 15 pathways analyzed, 12 were significantly different between autistic and non-autistic children.
The lead researcher, Jason J. Wolff, Ph.D, of UNC’s Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD), explained, “It’s a promising finding. At this point, it’s a preliminary albeit great first step towards thinking about developing a biomarker for risk in advance of our current ability to diagnose autism.”
Child psychiatrist Antonio Hardan, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford also studied signs of autism being visible in brain scans, “We are getting closer to being able to use brain-imaging technology to help in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals with autism.”
Hardan believes brain scans are not likely to completely replace traditional methods of autism diagnosis, which rely on behavioral assessments, but they may eventually aid diagnosis in toddlers.
If, following further investigations, brain scans prove successful they will have several applications in autism diagnosis and treatment. For instance, brain scans might eventually help distinguish autism from other behavioral disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or might predict whether high-risk children, such as those with autistic siblings, will go on to develop autism themselves.
Other research working towards earlier diagnosis of autism is looking at analyzing movement disturbances of 4-6 month olds, a baby’s gaze between 6-12 months and prenatal exposure to increased levels of testosterone. A checklist has also been developed to help identify autism as young as 1 year old.